Airbnb’s five rules for work-from-anywhere

King of the digital nomads.
King of the digital nomads.
Image: Reuters/Phil McCarten
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Airbnb, the company that changed how millions of people travel, is trying to figure out how to allow its staff to live and work from anywhere. On Friday, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced on Twitter “five key features” of its new work policy, which goes further than several other tech giants in its flexibility for employees:

1. You can work from home or the office—whatever works best for you

2. You can move anywhere in the country, like from San Francisco to Nashville, and your compensation won’t change

3. You have the flexibility to live and work in 170 countries for up to 90 days a year in each location

4. We’ll meet up regularly for team gatherings. Most employees will connect in person every quarter for about a week at a time (some more frequently)

5. To pull this off, we’ll operate off of a multi-year roadmap with two major product releases a year, which will keep us working in a highly coordinated way

By contrast, Apple has pushed employees to return to the office and several other tech companies have said they’ll adjust workers’ pay if they stay remote and move to cheaper locales.

Airbnb has an obvious business interest in experimenting with work-from-anywhere: The more companies adopt similar policies, the more potential customers booking long-term stays on Airbnb.

In January, Chesky said he’d been trying this lifestyle himself, tweeting that he was “living on Airbnb”:

He framed the decision as a response to customer behavior on the platform. Quartz’s Camille Squires reported that 20% of total nights booked on Airbnb in the third quarter of 2021 were part of a stay of 28 days or more.

Work from anywhere is here to stay

Regardless of how many people decide to become digital nomads, remote work is likely to increase even as the pandemic subsides. Participants on Good Judgment Open, a crowdsourced forecasting platform, predict that the percentage of jobs on LinkedIn that mention “hybrid” or “remote” will nearly double in the next year—to about a quarter of all postings. Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford who studies remote work, concludes from recent survey data that about 15% of workers will be fully remote after the pandemic with another 30% working in “hybrid” setups. He also says 30% of workers want to be fully remote, which will put pressure on companies to change their policies.

The shift away from the office has the potential to transform the world’s economic geography, creating opportunities outside of “superstar” cities and giving people more choice in how they integrate their work into the rest of their lives. But it will also alter the cadence of work in ways that are difficult to predict.

So far, remote work has mostly been positive for productivity, according to Bloom. But dramatically expanding the number of remote jobs while maintaining or improving productivity will require new ways of working, and that’s what makes Airbnb’s fourth and fifth remote work tenets so interesting. Not only will staff will be required to meet in person for up to a week at a time—a significant imposition for lots of people—but the company is adjusting its product launch schedule to enable its work-from-anywhere transformation.

How to make remote work better

Expect more shifts like that as companies experiment with remote work. As an example, recent research published in Nature found that in-person meetings generate more and better ideas than do video calls. The 2020 response to that is to declare that employees will inevitably need to head back to the office when covid subsides. In 2022, it’s worth asking whether in-person meetings and Zoom calls are the only options. Many decision making experts were arguing long before the pandemic that groups do better work when they generate ideas independently not in a meeting. Maybe the way to generate better ideas remotely is to have fewer meetings but structure some of the work in very different ways.

That’s easier said than done for a large, public company like Airbnb. But its leadership at least seem to get that work-from-anywhere will require fundamental shifts to how the organization gets things done. The new era of remote work began with Zoom calls from the kitchen table, but it isn’t going to end there.